Diarmaid Ferriter: Why has Ireland so many Independents?

Liam Weeks’s overview of Independent politics since 1922 rectifies a long-standing neglect

Johnny Healy Rae, son of Danny Healy Rae, on the bonnet of a jeep with Michael and Danny Healy Rae during the first meeting of the 32nd Dáil at Leinster House. Photograph: Alan Betson

Johnny Healy Rae, son of Danny Healy Rae, on the bonnet of a jeep with Michael and Danny Healy Rae during the first meeting of the 32nd Dáil at Leinster House. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Aug 12, 2017, 06:00


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There are more Independent parliamentarians in the Dáil than the combined total in all other western democracies. Given this, it is surprising that their preponderance, historic and current, has, until now, generated sparse published research. With this book, Liam Weeks, a lecturer in politics in UCC, has rectified a long-standing neglect and he has done it painstakingly, busying himself over the past 15 years to establish why Ireland has a political culture so “permissive of independents”.

The result is an impressively thorough overview of the many facets associated with the existence of Independents in Irish politics; to some extent it is a “study of mavericks”, but the subject matter is approached rigorously and judiciously to explain why Ireland has bucked international norms. Between 1945 and 2016, 3,130 TDs were elected to the Dáil, of whom 137 were Independents (4.4 per cent), 59 times the proportion elected in the United Kingdom.

As Weeks observes, “no-hope independent candidates run in many countries, but very few Alfie Byrnes are elected”, a reference to the formidable Dublin politician and lord mayor who got the highest number of first-preference votes in the country in the 1932 general election, a feat also achieved by Independent Oliver J Flanagan in Laois-Offaly in 1948.

In all, approximately 1,250 Independent candidates contested Dáil elections from 1922 to 2016. Why were there so many? Part of the explanation lies in the fact that for so long Irish politics was dominated by two large catch-all parties and a centrist Labour party, meaning “many niche interests” were not represented by the main parties.

The single transferable vote (STV) also worked in a manner to support Independents, but only in conjunction with a number of other factors (there are no Independents in Malta even though it uses STV), including an established tradition of votes for Independents, small constituencies in terms of geography and voters, a local and personalised political culture, favourable electoral rules (Independent candidates in Bulgaria require 10,000 signatures and a deposit of £7,500 to run), as well as chance of influence in government.

Left-wing candidates

Weeks gives an overview of each “family” of Independents going back to 1922 and there has been a great variety, including “vestigial independents” (the remnants of defunct parties) and Independent unionist, business, farmer and left-wing candidates. The slogan of an “independent constitutionalist” in 1927, James Xavier Murphy, was “drop politics for a while and get on with the work”, while Thomas Burke in Clare was renowned as a bonesetter, trading votes for his informal surgery.

There is also a chapter devoted to the testimonies of seven Independents that have been elected to public office (“an insiders account of life as an outsider”). Former Independent senator, historian John A Murphy, notes in relation to profile that from the 1970s to the 1990s the broadsheet media generously covered the affairs of the Seanad and as a university senator he had the freedom to express his views “with impunity”.

He also acknowledged “independents were a kind of democratic luxury made possible only because political parties facilitated the workings of the mundane machinery of government”. As a Dublin TD, Seán Loftus was at the centre of “a literal tug of war with me as the rope” when it came to voting on the budget in January 1982; Fine Gael ignored him and after the government fell he lost his seat and failed in his six attempts to regain it. Finian McGrath, current Minister of State, makes the perhaps contradictory claim “I was a total maverick . . . I had very definite political philosophies”.

For Catherine Murphy, now of the Social Democrats, being an Independent ironically “taught me a lot about working collaboratively with party politicians”.

As for the voters who have plumped for Independent candidates, theirs has not been an irrational choice; nor has that vote been merely a protest one. Some 40 per cent of Irish governments have been minority administrations and in almost all these cases Independents have had a role to play in their formation and survival.

Of 11 governments formed after elections from 1980 to 2016, seven ultimately relied on Independents. What is striking is the absence, in earlier decades, of arrangements with Independents that supported governments. WT Cosgrave insisted in 1927, “I will not stultify myself or my colleagues or my supporters by taking office under such conditions.” Seán Lemass needed the votes of two Independents in 1961; he apparently made no deals with them and dared them to collapse the government, but “it was never wholly clear what influence the independents brought to bear on this administration”.

In impressive detail, Weeks goes through each period of Independents in government, reminding us that the coalition government fell in 1951 not because of the Mother and Child scheme controversy as is often assumed, but because Independents pulled the plug over agricultural and local issues; taoiseach John A Costello accused them of “exploiting petty grievances”.

Government formation

What did change was the extent of the riches bestowed for Independent votes that facilitated government formation and survival; not just with Tony Gregory in the early 1980s but into the 1990s and beyond; Jackie Healy-Rae boasted he had “delivered” £250 million (€317.4 million) for his Kerry constituency from 1997 to 2002 for supporting Bertie Ahern’s coalition government.

Weeks does not skirt the big question: are Independents a positive feature of a modern democracy or detrimental to its functionality? He argues that they do not create exceptional instability or make it harder to form governments. Nor are they primarily responsible for skewing the allocation of scarce resources; just four Progressive Democrats in government from 1997 to 2002, for example, “had a far greater effect” on resource distribution than the four Independents supporting the government.

Many of the criticisms of Independents, he concludes, “lack an empirical basis” and he firmly asserts they are “a healthy sign of the openness of the Irish political system”.

Weeks alone has done the exhaustive research, also incorporating a comparative framework by looking at Japan and Australia in particular, to make these confident claims, and he deserves much credit for his impressive toil, replete with expert graphs, tables and number crunching. It is just a pity he has been ill-served by his publisher Manchester University Press who is charging €90 for the privilege of adding this book to your library.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and an Irish Times columnist